Syrian American Shadia Martini talks to The New Arab about her groundbreaking Michigan primary win

Syrian American Shadia Martini talks to The New Arab about her groundbreaking Michigan primary win
Shadia Martini is the first Syrian American woman to win a nomination to the Michigan State Legislature.  She faces a competitive race in November in her swing district.
3 min read
Washington, D.C.
05 August, 2022
Shadia Martini has just won a tight race in Michigan's Democratic primary for state representative [Photo courtesy of Shadia Martini's campaign]

Shadia Martini spent years advocating for Syrian human rights with US politicians. Now that she's won her primary race for state representative in Michigan, she might have a chance for a seat at the table. 

"We've spent a lot of time asking politicians for help in human rights. It's time to have an actual Syrian uplifting our own community," Martini told The New Arab after her win in the Michigan primaries this week.

"Hopefully we can uplift ourselves so we don’t have to depend on others."

She and her son, Kareem Rifai, her campaign manager, are now celebrating her close win in this week’s Democratic primary, making her the first Syrian American woman to win a nomination to the Michigan State Legislature.  

"Mom's opponent was an elected official. We won by around 400 votes. Analysts counted us out," Rifai told The New Arab. "It was a nailbiter. We didn't know until the next morning." 

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But with tough competition coming up in the November general election in this swing district, they won't be celebrating for long, with plenty of work for the November midterms. 

District 54 has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats (by approximately 1-2 percent), but the district voted for Biden in the last presidential election, meaning Martini will have to appeal to some of these Biden-voting Republicans. 

She believes she can appeal to these groups on the issue of the economy, having experience as an entrepreneur and working in real estate. 

She might also have a chance to sway swing voters on the issue of women's reproductive rights, a position long supported by the majority of Americans, despite the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, an act that guaranteed women's abortion rights.

As was seen in the deeply conservative state of Kansas this week, voters chose to not outlaw abortion. Martini was one of two of the three candidates in her primary to get endorsed by Planned Parenthood and was the only candidate endorsed by #VOTEPROCHOICE. 

Another issue she has spoke out against is gun violence, an issue close to her growing up in Aleppo during the 1970s uprising, and then last year with the school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, which is near her district. 

Historically, the party that wins the presidency loses the midterms. However, this cycle has several unusual factors at play making the outcome difficult to predict. First, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, supported by most Americans, could put swing voters on the side of Democrats. Second, not knowing when or if former President Donald Trump will announce his candidacy makes it a challenge for Republicans to strategise. Third, voter turnout is typically low in midterms, meaning slightly higher-than-usual turnout from one side or the other can make a big difference, particularly in a swing district like Michigan’s 54th. 

This isn't Martini's first entry into politics. She ran for office in 2020, but it was against an incumbent, which Rifai now describes as an "exploratory" race, to help gain experience and build infrastructure. This time, with a newly redrawn open district with no incumbents, they knew they'd stand a better chance.  

Though the district's Arab community is relatively small, their involvement played an important part in this narrow race, possibly a sign that representation matters for constituents. Indeed, within hours of her win, Martini had received messages from Arabs around the world. 

"I just hope I can make a difference," she said. "When you bring together people from different backgrounds to brainstorm, it’s a way to solve problems. I hope I can bring what I’ve been through and contribute to the community.”"